Carol A. Hand
Sometimes, living between cultures means looking at the world in different ways. As someone who doesn’t look “Indian,” I have experienced how much easier it is to live with white skin privilege. I blend in, at least outwardly, and feel invisible. Yet when I have lived and traveled throughout northern Wisconsin, I noticed that residents in communities that border reservations have a more finely attuned skill at discerning physical differences. I didn’t feel invisible when I walked into a business or restaurant. The scrutiny didn’t feel welcoming or friendly, nor was the treatment I sometimes experienced. “You can’t cash your check here,” said the teller at the bank I had used for years in the White border community. “We don’t know who you are. You need to go to the branch on the reservation.” Nor was the store cashier welcoming when she greeted me loudly so everyone can hear, “You can’t come in here with that bag on your shoulder (a laptop that I couldn’t leave while I waited for my car to be serviced). “It’s too big. You might steal something.” Or the more subtle forms of discrimination. Sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes watching as all of the new White arrivals are served and finally realizing that my wait will be infinite. Sometimes I confronted it, but sometimes I felt shamed, angered, or both by the treatment. (It reminds me of how exposed I felt during the years I lived on the flat farmlands of central Illinois without the presence of trees to shelter me from the elements.)
As a child, I embraced my Ojibwe heritage without shame. In fact, it made me feel special. In my New Jersey community, it was seen as “cool” by my classmates. Still, I worked harder at everything I did out of a sense of responsibility to prove to my mother that being Ojibwe didn’t make us inferior. Feeling proud of my heritage also made me more likely to reach out to others who were “different.” Yet I noticed the importance of “skin-color gradients” on my mother’s reservation. When I stayed with my relatives in the summer, I saw that the cousins whose skin pigmentation was darker were treated differently, more harshly, than those with lighter colored hair and skin. In retrospect, I am grateful that my childhood spared me from that expression of internalized racism. I doubt that I would have survived it.
In school and professional arenas, I felt it was irrelevant and unnecessary to point out my cultural heritage. It didn’t prevent me from using critical thinking in school. It didn’t matter to the nursing home residents I cared for, or the people I served in restaurants. That changed, however, when I had to address the systematic discrimination and entrenched hegemony built into state policies that denied sovereign rights to tribes, or sanctioned agency practices that denied access to those who were most vulnerable.
I felt obligated to publicly disclose my cultural identity and assume a more visible advocacy role not only on behalf of tribes, but also for others who were similarly excluded due to age, class, gender, or ability. It was not a comfortable position. Doing so changed how people related to me, both Whites and Native Americans. Once again, I felt I was standing exposed on the prairie. I was “othered.” Suddenly, every word I uttered or action I took was carefully scrutinized. It seemed as though every contribution or mistake I made was publicly acclaimed and amplified well beyond their significance in ways that made me feel like a trained monkey who could talk, the personification of all the negative assumptions about Native Americans, or like a clumsy purple alien from outer space.
Photo Credit: Gary Larson, The Far Side (1983 FarWorks, Inc.)
My boss introduced me to the Governor and other people in important public positions as “our well-tailored Chippewa.” She also made sure that I received a highly publicized award, not for one of the projects that I knew made a difference for elders in the state, but for a minor tribal initiative that showcased the agency’s commitment to Affirmative Action, confirming for others who were more deserving of recognition that the degrees I earned were not the reason I held my position. Although I found public scrutiny uncomfortable, I was able to maintain a sense of humor and use my position to serve as an advocate for people who would otherwise not be represented. As a state employee, my small successes to target resources to elders with the greatest needs still remained unobserved in the tedious policy documents I produced or the responses I ghost-wrote for the Department Secretary or Governor.
The opportunity to sometimes remain invisible changed, however, when I assumed the role of deputy director for an inter-tribal organization. For the executive branch administrators who were once my superiors in the hierarchy of state government, the “well-tailored Chippewa” had become a vocal advocate who would make sure that marginalized voices were heard in policy deliberations. Socially constructed beliefs about education and titles gave my comments more credibility. The inter-tribal staff who had unquestioningly imposed state and federal restrictions on tribes in the past eagerly shifted when they realized it was their job to represent tribes and question policies and procedures that created undue hardships for tribal people. University faculty who were used to exploiting tribal communities for research projects had to follow more egalitarian protocols and community direction. State funders who had once easily used “divide and conquer” strategies with tribal leaders to avoid awarding reasonable grants to address compelling needs or refused to recognize tribal sovereignty no longer found this approach effective. My Ojibwe boss loved to tease me about my feisty advocacy, asking where my white horse was parked and routinely giving me replicas of the statue of liberty.
Photo Credit: pagescoloring.net
It was exciting to watch as inter-tribal staff began to consciously challenge hegemony. Yet carrying the responsibility to transform power relations is a lonely life-style, not merely a job. It made me a target for those who wanted to resume their hegemony over tribes, as well as for tribal leaders and community members who wanted to be in the spotlight. I was grateful for an excuse to give up working 12 hour days seven days a week. Maybe, I thought, it’s time to try something new, but that’s another story…
Photo Credit: Aadi (my grandson) and me, blowing bubbles – 2001